Bearing Johnson's stamp, Miami rolls Rookies play big roles as new-look Dolphins beat Patriots, 24-10

September 02, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- There were no shadows for Jimmy Johnson to climb out from under yesterday, only the sunlit glow of new beginnings.

With Don Shula absent and his once-vibrant empire a fading memory, the Miami Dolphins throttled the New England Patriots, 24-10, before a crowd of 71,542.

If Johnson's debut as coach marked the new order in Miami, there were precious few reminders of the Shula past.

The Dolphins' heroes were rookies named Zach Thomas and Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Stanley Pritchett. Their winning formula was a throwback to Johnson's Dallas days.

And even the stadium reflected change. Thanks to a $20 million deal that Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga recently procured, Joe Robbie Stadium is now Pro Player Park.

"That was a nice win for us," Johnson said in the giddy aftermath. "But I don't want the guys to get too ecstatic about it, because it's only one win."

It was only one win, but it was also a bold statement about where these Dolphins are going.

Johnson said his team would run the ball. It did yesterday with a vengeance, rushing for 146 yards, 115 by Abdul-Jabbar.

He said the Dolphins would play aggressive defense. With five new starters, including two rookies, on defense, they sacked the Patriots' Drew Bledsoe four times and intercepted him twice.

Thomas, a 5-foot-11 middle linebacker who was named a starter after one preseason game, showed the wisdom of that decision. Ranging from sideline to sideline, he recorded nine tackles, one sack and delivered the biggest hit of the game, a scary helmet-to-helmet shot on New England's overmatched Shawn Jefferson, who came away with a concussion.

It took Shula 26 years to build his legacy in South Florida. It took Johnson one game to put his stamp on the new Dolphins.

Have Johnson's players bought into the new system?

"I think they've bought in," Johnson said. "They know how we're going to try to win. We're going to try to win games by running the ball, with defense and the kicking game. . . . I don't want to ride Dan Marino in every game."

The Dolphins didn't have to in this one. Marino completed 16 of 22 passes for 176 yards (and no touchdowns), but was only 5-for-7 in the first half, when Miami averaged 4.7 yards a carry.

Abdul-Jabbar handled the biggest workload, with 26 carries as a last-minute replacement for injured Irving Spikes. He had felt Johnson's wrath in preseason when he nursed sore ankles and missed practices. Behind the criticism, he said, was a basic truth.

"I understood him completely," Abdul-Jabbar said. "There are only 45 of us out here, and I guarantee you, nobody was healthy. You have to play hurt."

Abdul-Jabbar had the Dolphins' first 100-yard rushing game by a rookie in seven years.

Pritchett made his debut as a strong blocker for Abdul-Jabbar and a capable pass catcher. The fullback led the team with six receptions for 77 yards.

The running game had been a focal point all preseason for Johnson, but especially this week.

"On Wednesday, he challenged some players," said left guard Keith Sims, who was among them. "It hasn't happened around here in the past. There will be a hot seat each week to have a good game."

The Dolphins were good enough to create their own breaks. On the first series, Bledsoe (19-for-38 for 222 yards and one touchdown) threw an out pattern and receiver Will Moore ran an in route. Strong safety Louis Oliver picked off the errant pass, and, 60 yards later, caught from behind, he fumbled it.

On the spot was teammate Sean Hill, who scooped up the ball at the 10 and raced in for Miami's first touchdown.

As if to show it wasn't a fluke, the Dolphins turned another fumble into another touchdown in the third quarter. That's when LTC Pritchett ran 15 yards with a pass before he coughed it up at the goal line. The ball bounced right into the hands of Scott Miller in the end zone for a 24-3 lead.

Afterward, Johnson admitted to a case of pre-game nerves.

"Last night and today, every time I turned the TV on or read a paper, somebody was picking New England [to win]," he said. "Sometimes, you guys are right.

"And I hadn't been with a team in a while where everybody was picking against us."

Pub Date: 9/02/96

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